Thursday 8 January 2015

Vermeer time: "Girl with a Pearl Earring and Other Treasures from the Mauritshuis"

Ben Stiller one week, Frederick Wiseman the next: seems everyone's going to the museum before the administrators have the doors closed for good. With Girl with a Pearl Earring and Other Treasures from the Mauritshuis, the team behind the In Search Of... series - which did such a good job explaining the appeal of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven to tin-eared neophytes like myself - dip both a toe and a brush into the artworld: a celebration of/promotional tool for the recently reopened gallery in The Hague, it uses the Mauritshuis's most famous inventory item as a Trojan horse to access Vermeer's life and work, and the institution's many other highlights of 17th century Dutch representative art. (The competition for tourism bucks is getting so fierce it may well be that, sooner or later, every gallery winds up with a documentary crew dashing around it, compiling the images that might attract art lovers to cinemas worldwide before being repackaged for sale in the gift shop.)

It's bolstered by producer Phil Grabsky's typically sturdy, time-honoured approach: a close attention to each item under scrutiny, backed up by perceptive textural analysis delivered in talking-head format by curators, critics and Tracy Chevalier alike. Most agree that the Girl's appeal centres on an idea (possibly ideal) of female beauty: even the unschooled eye can appreciate how approachable she is, certainly in comparison with, say, the million-miles-away Mona Lisa - something to do with either the subject's watery eyes and parted lips, or the manner in which she appears to "pop out" from her jet-black surrounds. (The discussion of the painter's rare handling of light chimes absolutely with the hands-on demonstration of last year's Tim's Vermeer.) It could have been as fatally dry as the critic who expires before Vermeer's "View of Delft" in Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, but the filmmakers keep finding ways of making their eminent scholarship connect with layman and connoisseur alike, not least via frequent dabs of humour: picking out the lovingly rendered cowdung in the corner of Paulus Potter's "The Bull", for example, or having our narrator note, just after the revelation that Vermeer's wife Catharina Bolnes produced fifteen children, that "Johannes also found time to be a painter". Didn't he just.

Girl with a Pearl Earring and Other Treasures from the Mauritshuis screens in selected cinemas on Tuesday 13th.

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